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Prescription for a More Sustainable Future:
Sustainability Solutions Practice

How can we create a future where 9 billion people live well within the limits of the planet? Can we harness knowledge to encourage a transition to a more sustainable future? What are the best solutions for current social, environmental and economic issues and how will they need to change and adapt over time?

How can we create a future where 9 billion people live well within the limits of the planet? Can we harness knowledge to encourage a transition to a more sustainable future? What are the best solutions for current social, environmental and economic issues and how will they need to change and adapt over time?

The Rob and Melani Walton Sustainability Solutions Initiatives, a program of the Global Institute of Sustainability (GIOS) at Arizona State University (ASU) are designed to address these questions. While the term “solution” most commonly refers to the means of solving a problem or challenge, most sustainability challenges are complex, systemic and dynamic so the alternative definition is also useful — fluid with substance dissolved in it. Our approach is one that diagnoses current sustainability problems, applies science and use-inspired research, monitors results, refines treatment and promotes best practice.

Sander van der Leeuw, a Senior Sustainability Scientist at ASU and United Nations Champion of the Earth, describes the domain of medicine as the health of individuals in relationship to their environment and the domain of sustainability as the health of societies interacting with their environment. This analogy between medicine and sustainability is useful in explaining the intent of the Walton Sustainability Solutions Initiatives.

The Walton Sustainability Solutions Initiatives, funded by a generous five-year investment by the Walton Family Foundation, are focused on delivering practical, holistic solutions in the same way a general practitioner in a teaching hospital works with real patients to not only heal individuals, but also test, refine, document, and promote best practices. This in turn offers critical, real-world learning opportunities for the next generation of practitioners. Like a teaching hospital, we are focused on improving the public good through direct engagement with the underserved, providing educational outreach and promoting proven interventions.

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Our work has both short- and long-term impact, as we begin to apply systems thinking to complex challenges facing individuals, businesses and institutions. Our clients and partners often describe their issues as a set of simple symptoms, but when we probe for external and internal causes, we expand their understanding of risks, opportunities and trade-offs.

Symptoms turn into solutions

For example, the Sustainability Solutions Services provide advice to the city of Phoenix on how to best achieve its goal of diverting 40 percent of waste from the city’s landfills by 2020. The Solutions Services’ initial analysis indicated that city employees drive over 7 million miles a year picking up and delivering waste to landfills, which represents a great cost in fuel and high carbon emissions. Through this partnership with the city, Solutions Services is building an economic case for a regional resource recovery center that will further streamline waste and recycling efforts while reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

Both the Solutions Services and the Center for Integrated Solutions to Climate Challenges are working with the city of Phoenix to update the city’s GHG emissions inventory — the first step leading to a vulnerability assessment and climate action plan. Like a routine doctor checkup, this inventory allows policymakers and citizens to make informed decisions regarding everyday operations, long-term investments, and personal responsibility.

To better integrate research and practice, the Walton Initiatives’ eight programs are designed to leverage the time and talent of faculty specialists while adding to the body of knowledge of sustainability practices. The Solutions Services and the Global Sustainability Solutions Centers are organized to engage faculty in short, focused consultations.

The Walton Initiatives team handles the majority of business development, administration and management, which then allows the partners to focus on solutions and benefits. Clients, public partners and non-governmental organizations gain access to the broad scope of knowledge from our scientists and scholars; the graduate students gain practical experience to better understand the application of their curriculum; and faculty can continue or expand their line of inquiry, refine their problem sets or publish results of various activities. This amalgamation of participants and efforts has already been demonstrated through projects and partnerships that include the Municipality of Haarlemmermeer in the Netherlands and Fung Global Institute in Hong Kong.

Synergy impacts results

Just like doctors from different medical fields trying to decode a disease, the Walton Sustainability Solutions Initiatives team is a collaborative service and research platform comprised of eight complementary programs that are more than the sum of their parts. This was recently illustrated by an Evaluating Impact Workshop to map out sustainability indicators to long-term outcomes for each of the eight programs. The workshop participants included a Walton Fellow, ASU School of Sustainability faculty and students, Walton Initiatives team members, and Walton Family Foundation evaluators who expanded on the question: “How can we provide evidence that our efforts are leading the transition to a more sustainable future?” We expect several publications to result from this workshop.

Another example of collaboration and synergy among faculty and practitioners is the Next-Generation Sustainability Projects that provide seed funding to teams of scientists, scholars and practitioners collaborating on solutions to “wicked problems” — problems that are complex and resistant to easy solutions. In the first year, we have awarded funds to create a co-lab that will address issues of sustainable development through collaboration between a developed and an underdeveloped community. This project crosses international borders, disciplines and institutions.

In addition to direct work on sustainability projects, the Walton Initiatives’ outreach aims to educate future leaders at various levels, much like a teaching hospital in underserved communities. We offer study abroad opportunities to ASU School of Sustainability majors and minors through the Global Sustainability Studies Program to provide cross-cultural experiences that expand the global context of their studies. We have designed an Executive Master’s for Sustainability Leadership degree for mid-career professionals who may have migrated into sustainability roles from other fields who want to lead their businesses or institutions forward but may lack the leadership skills to build a business case for change.

We are also reaching K-12 students and the broader public through our Sustainability Solutions Festival. Beyond an annual weeklong celebration of sustainability solutions, the Festival supports key partnerships that build awareness of the breadth of issues included under the umbrella of sustainability as well as the urgency of finding viable solutions.

Future investing

The analogy of the teaching hospital is useful in another way. We must identify and tap into additional resources now to continue our work in the future. In effect, we are building a social enterprise within a university setting. In the meantime, true to the methods of most sophisticated impact investors, we also expect to report progress against specific metrics and ambitious long-term outcomes.

We have a stellar team leading this effort and we are confident that we are advancing the mission of the Global Institute of Sustainability’s next phase, GIOS 3.0, which is to provide evidence of our leadership and accelerate the impact of our solutions.